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Leadership, community, and the current crisis at General Seminary

Leadership, community, and the current crisis at General Seminary

by Andrew Gerns

On Friday, the news broke that most of the faculty at the General Theological Seminary in New York City have decided to refrain from teaching classes, attending official seminary meetings, and attend Chapel services until they are able to sit down and have a conversation with the Board of Trustees.

Despite a follow up letter from the faculty to the students describing in more detail what it going on, there is still some question as to what is going on.

The conflict has nothing to do with pay, hours, job description, benefits, or perks. There is none of the traditional pocket-book labor issues at stake.

This is not a disagreement over the need for change to they way we do theological education or the way we prepare clergy for ministry. So the Wisdom Year (where in students spend their third year in parishes, particularly those that are small, in distressed communities, or who have lacked regular, full-time priestly ministry, doing and learning parish ministry in “a real-world setting”) is not at issue. The faculty have been supportive of the concept both in theory and in substance.

As far as I can tell the real issues have to do with the leadership style of the dean and his tendency to “Lone Ranger” decisions–even correct ones, but also dubious ones–without debate, discussion or buy-in.

In speaking with, or reading things written by, various stakeholders–some who support the action and some who do not– I have learned the following:

The main issue has to do with the relationship between the faculty and Dean & President especially the consequences of his style of leadership. In particular, those who chosen to take part in the job action cite the apparent tendency of the Dean to hear questions as dissent and to assign hostile intent to those who disagree with his approach.

Dunkle makes no secret of the fact that he is a person who does not believe in collaboration but rather that he prefers to be a leader who keeps and articulates the vision with the expectation that the leaders in the middle will use their talents and skills to carry out his central vision.

The line in the faculty statement about “maturity” has to do with the fact that the Dean has told the students that protest is a form of immaturity and that the problem is that the faculty will not do what they must do to accomplish the mission as he sees it.

So the Dean does not like to waste too much time in listening to or compromising with other stake holders. Especially when that dialogue might delay or temper his vision. He wants to dive right in and get on with it.

Related to this is the fact that he has gathered all authority to himself. So he has final say over both curriculum decisions as well as the conduct of worship in the chapel. The problem is that–like many Rectors who find themselves in trouble–he apparently has lost the balance in leadership between direction and influence that is essential to function effectively in an environment where checks and balances exist. In a parish, the Vestry holds the purse-strings. A priest can choose to make that relationship essentially adversarial or essentially collaborative. In a parish, congregants can come and go. A rector can choose to write off those who don’t follow as recalcitrant folks who dislike change, or the rector can choose to work the process knowing that most will come along and some won’t but that the community is working together for change–and this takes time, patience, and finesse.

This comes into play in the Dean’s public discussions about the so-called “Wisdom Year.” For him, “Wisdom” comes from the experience of enduring conflict. He has said that what students need to experience in the Wisdom Year is “being beat up.” While he has publicly and repeatedly apologized for using that image, it reflects a bias that “wisdom comes through struggle.”

Add to that the idea that theological knowledge is secondary to practical skills. He has also publicly told people in public forums that a priest’s education is incomplete unless the cleric learns in the “real” world she or he must be able to “fix the toilet.” His perspective is that unless the cleric learns practical considerations of institutional management, the priest will not be successful.

We in this see two different visions of theological education at odds with each other.

The tension comes when those practical considerations are cut loose from theological reflection. Basic questions about how the parishes that are supposed to benefit the most from the wisdom year–marginal, struggling and moribund congregations in various states of transition–can afford and pay for the seminarians sent to them for a year; of how those students will receive useful supervision, peer support, and theological reflection; and how the congregations will both get necessary sacramental ministry and live with the decisions these students make from year to year have not been effectively answered. In the haste to get this model up and running, fundamental questions of both process and mission are left unanswered.

A third perspective the Dean brings is that it appears that the success of the leader can be measured by the resistance he experiences from the system. From this stand-point, collaboration can be dangerous because it allows the leader to live at the mercy of the anxiety of those threatened by change. Again, I hear in his comments about wisdom coming from “being beat up” and protest arising out of “immaturity” as indicative of a perspective that assumes that when people are fighting back, the leaders must be doing something right.

Lastly, Dean Dunkle believes that the Seminary must align itself to be responsive to the general attitudes and trends of the church at large. To be relevant to the culture, the seminary must dare to jettison some long held traditions. So he has ended the practice of daily morning and evening prayer and daily Eucharist in favor of a schedule of alternate morning prayers and Eucharists over a few days a week. He has removed some of the pews to make for a space for people to socialize after chapel. And he has discouraged the use of words like “Mass” in describing the Chapel Eucharist or “Solemn” in describing a sung liturgy (in favor of the friendlier “festival”) because, in his view, that’s not now the culture at large speaks about the liturgy.

In the process, the focus on worship that was once the hallmark of life at General changed. Because most parishes don’t worship on a daily basis and most don’t have daily Eucharist, and since the student body is more and more dispersed, the pattern of worship has been changed.

But with this decision, the idea that formation happens in community and that the rhythm of daily office and daily Eucharist anchors the common life of the seminary, even if only a minority of the community was present at any given time (because mandatory Chapel went away decades ago), has been eliminated. The idea at the heart of Hoffman’s grand design of the Close was to combine academics with Chapel life in a way to intensely form priests. There is a reason that the buildings include living spaces and classrooms that center on the Chapel.

Now, this is not to say that worship is at the heart of the tensions with the faculty. The pinch comes when decisions about worship that have a significant impact on the fabric of the community are made by mere fiat. That’s a recipe for turmoil.

There appears to be a profound lack of theological reflection in the process of change that the Dean has undertaken, which along with an impatience with relationship-building, that is strangely at odds with the mission of a seminary to form and prepare priests for mission in parish communities.

After a decade or more of financial instability that required the relief of accumulated debt–through the sale of significant chunks of property– and after many false starts at realigning the mission of the seminary, I believe that the Trustees wanted a strong leader, a man of action, who willing to think outside of the proverbial box. It is entirely possible that the Board is completely sold on and committed to the direction and changes that the Dean has in mind.

I believe that the faculty were as anxious as the Trustees were to have in their Dean someone who was willing to take big risks and make bold moves. What no one expected is that this particular leader would not be at home with collaboration but is instead impatient to get going and get the job done.

The Trustees may have been told that they should expect resistance from the faculty and that this might be seen as a sign of success. They may not want to have any dialogue with the faculty because they feel that they must support the Dean and President no matter what. And they may believe that to mediate conflict or to develop processes to bring in key stake holders in the decision-cycle will de-rail the hard choices to come.

The Trustees, I think, must choose what they understand their primary function to be: let the vision and direction flow from the Dean and President or, alternatively, to be the ones who themselves take responsibility for developing a vision and direction for the seminary. Being an elected and appointed body that represents the wider church, alumni, faculty and students, this will by definition call for collaboration.

In my view, it is not the Dean and President who is in charge of developing the mission and direction of the Seminary, but the Board of Trustees and by extension the General Convention who, after all, “owns” the Seminary in a way that is unique to the seminaries of the Episcopal Church.

There is an interesting parallel process to the recent turmoil uptown at the Metropolitan Opera, who barely avoided a devastating lock-out and salvaged their season when the unions representing the choristers, stagehands, and orchestra wrung out of the Board and Peter Gelb, the artistic director, significant input into the artistic choices of the company, the use of resources to put on productions, and financial accountability.

In that instance, the take-it-or-leave-it style of leadership generated a crisis, perhaps in the hope that the management and board could win concessions and cost savings from the workers and artists who put on the productions. Instead, it alienated the people who made the Opera possible and, worst of all, drove away patrons and donors.

What is happening in Chelsea Square is similar in that the leadership is so intent on their goal and so committed to a single over-riding vision, that they appear to have forgotten who it is they serve, who it is that makes the mission happen and who must live with the decisions in the long run.

It is true that the tone of an organization–parish, seminary, opera company, manufacturer–emanates from the leaders. But it is easy to forget that an organization is organic. The effective leader listens to resistance–from within himself, from within the organization and from outside–because of it is usually sending a message. The leader must choose what stance he or she is going to take towards the people being led. This means choosing his or her approach to the necessary and predictable responses to even ordinary change. If one assumes that the people who are not buying into your vision are incompetent or fearful or wrong, or if people who have a different approach are either saboteurs or terrorists, then all the organization will experience is conflict. The measure of success will be “winning” rather than accomplishing the goal.

It is true that if a leader takes the approach of going along to get along and always accommodates unhappy people, then the organization falls into kind of chaos.

But what is strange here is that fight is among people who essentially agree– but who bring to the table concerns or perspectives that seem distracting or irrelevant to the leader.

This is the second time in a year when a seminary of the Episcopal Church has been wracked by internal strife between administration and faculty. Tom Ehrich wrote about his seminary that he hoped that students would learn that this is not the way to handle conflict. In a similar vein, I hope that the current class of students of my alma mater will learn that visionary, risk-taking leadership is required for the church’s future, but that perhaps this is not the way to go about it.

One may disagree with the approach the faculty has taken…to stay away from classes, meetings and chapel until they have a open and honest conversation with the Board…but after two attempts at mediation have failed–combined with the fact that it has only taken twelve months for this level of crisis to unfold–indicates that leadership has failed to build on the opportunities that their new found financial stability has brought them.

Instead of developing a shared vision, building relationships with all the stakeholders, a solution is imposed as a cure all with the promise that it will change the church. Perhaps that’s the problem. We don’t change the Church. The gathering of God’s people, wherein the Holy Spirit dwells and which demonstrates the face of Christ, changes us.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is the Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania in the Diocese of Bethlehem. He keeps the blog “Fun’n’Games in the Kingdom of God.”


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I took some time to more completely read and digest Dean Dunkle’s April 2 “The Way of Wisdom -Diving into the Deep End” article in GTS News. In it, he wrote, “I have a theory about wisdom: it is only acquired two ways. First, you must authentically enter real life with all its dangers and have experiences which throw you up against others.”

On a basic level, those two ways are not the only ways to acquire wisdom. One need not be “thrown up against” another to acquire wisdom. Nor is a seminary less constitutive of a “real life” experience than elsewhere.

As a specialist in congregational transformation, it troubles me that a seminary and a diocese would want to immerse and initiate seminarians in settings that “throw [them] up against others;” and not only that, but that they would bear “the weight of decision-making, make decisions, and then live with the consequences.” With the possible exception of second-career candidates with significant leadership backgrounds, this is no way to form new priests/pastors, nor is it a way to assist struggling parishes. Those parishes need deft, experienced touches, and so do those priests-in-the-making. Otherwise, as I alluded to in a previous post, the ECUSA will train up a generation of priests who are hammers who view all problems as nails. It would be far better for newly-or-about-to-be-ordained leaders to experience training settings characterized by team-based leadership, servant leadership, and strong mentoring.

I’m concerned that Dean Dunkle views seminary as “only provid[ing] a wading pool; real life in a parish or ministry is the deep end!” Seminary, seminary faculty, fluid populations of students all gathered for the intention of formation and preparation to serve God’s people – that’s the deep end, too. Read Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together,” for a glimpse of that deep end. How disrespectful to devoted teaching theologians and scholars to frame their context as “not real life,” and the shallow end. No wonder there is a rift.

The notion of “The Way of Wisdom” requiring a “complete blending” of education, formation, and experience into each other as a kind of “habitus” strikes me as at least a little a naive. It is a nice idea but difficult (nearly impossible) to effectively integrate field experiences with academic reflection or any kind of praxis model when the components are so utterly linear and separated by time and distance. To succeed, the components must be concurrent. They must develop in a true “habitus” where the [i]daily[/i] practices, habits and experiences of the community lean into each other, in proximity, in real time. Nor is it reasonable to expect that respected and capable professors will necessarily be experienced or skilled at integrating such field learning and experience with other curricula. Some may. But their leadership contexts and life contexts are often essentially different – not less than, nor shallower, but different.

How sad that the very seminarians who are to be more fully prepared through the Dean’s initiatives are instead learning that the very ones who purport to know what’s best for them can’t sit and figure it out together. A discerning student might deduce, “The results of the Dean’s methods are not ones I would choose to want.” Were I responsible in any kind of executive way for the overall health and effectiveness of an institution with such a struggle, it would certainly cause me to look twice at all involved.

Rev. Bruce A. Cole


The notion of what are essentially intern sites at “marginal, struggling and moribund congregations in various states of transition” is faulty. While it is certainly possible for emerging leaders to learn in such crucibles, it would be far more useful to spend “Wisdom” years among the wise, i.e. among rectors and lay leaders who are leading thriving parishes and have discovered key ingredients to effective mission. This situation sounds like a classic “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail” story.


At the spring 1976 GTS Trustees meeting I (the elected president? of the recently resuscitated student government) read a letter suggesting that the Trustees replace the current Dean, for reasons articulated in the letter. Another student, with a dissenting opinion, spoke after me.

Several years later that Dean did step down, retaining his faculty position.

The whole process was uncomfortable, of course. (There was some concern that one elderly Trustee bishop might be having a stroke; he didn’t.) But it was spacious, civil, maybe even gracious.

What’s different from today? I don’t remember how students got on the agenda, but it didn’t seem that difficult.

That was (like now) (sort of) a time of uncertainty, of no assurances. General Convention had not yet approved ordaining women priests. My class started in 1973 with 17 people; it got bigger the next year only because PDS and ETS merged. There was plenty of deepest disagreement.

But there was the sense that we were all in the dance, and the dance was going on, even if nobody knew the next step. ‘We lead, you follow’ wasn’t working any more. We did try to avoid stepping on each others’ toes. (usually)

Bob Duncan was the Dean’s assistant. Well, maybe it didn’t work so well in the long run.

But there was hope in the air, and we all kept breathing. And the long run is still dancing.

Martha Blacklock

Gregory Orloff

How pertinent these words from the readings at yesterday’s Eucharist seem now!

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)

Anyone who fancies him/herself a “Christian leader” who “sets the vision” that others “must follow” — no discussion necessary — ought to ponder those words.

Michael Merriman

As a 1966 graduate, I pray for better leadership that the report would indicate has been going on. I’m particularly concerned about the Chapel and its central role in priestly formation.

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